It’s not everyday you see a “road closed” sign in downtown Jackson, only to be followed by a man walking in lederhosen and Celtic music playing just around the corner. The Jackson International Food and Arts Festival, held Sept. 30, made this a reality, as the streets downtown bustled with people gathered to celebrate and experience the diverse cultures represented by residents of West Tennessee.
As I entered the festival, I could see three women in traditional Indian clothing performing a dance right in front of the Jackson city hall. While the festival lasted, the stage was occupied by various engaging, cultural performances, ranging from martial arts demonstrations to tango.
I maneuvered myself through the crowd right across, moving carefully not to step on the beautiful dresses, while hearing Portuguese in the first few footsteps and Arabic in the next few.
Around 15 different cultures were represented by the booths lining the streets, each with people busily dishing up food for the line in front of them, sharing about their artwork and artifacts or providing other interactive experiences.
I was soon able to find my favorite Middle Eastern dessert at a booth co-worked by three women from Palestine, Kenya and Pakistan, who had met in Tennessee. I hastily asked for one, and they told me the name of the cake soaked in syrup and topped with coconut. I couldn’t get it right the first time, but they were happy to say it over and over with a wide smile.
“Bas-bou-sa. Basbousa,” they said, taking turns. I repeated it in my head so I wouldn’t forget. When I asked the Palestinian woman how long she’s lived in Jackson, she told me that it’s been about 19 years. “It’s our country now!” she said, before having to greet the next person waiting in line.
At noon, the street was cleared for the Parade of Nations, which consisted of representatives of many different cultures and countries marched through the streets, holding flags, singing and dancing in traditional clothing.
The Jackson International Food and Arts Festival is in its fourth year now, envisioned in 2013 by Dr. Sandra Dee and Eduardo Morales, now co-chairs of the festival. Their mission is to “spread cultural awareness, promote cross-cultural engagement, and celebrate the diverse backgrounds of residents throughout West Tennessee.”
I could see these cross-cultural interactions happening around the booths, as people connected and shared stories with each other. While my sister was receiving a 5-minute massage trial at the Japan booth, lying face-down on a table, Minako Davis, the therapist, told me that she had moved to Jackson 15 years ago.
“The first year, Walmart didn’t have Japanese rice. You guys are lucky,” Davis said, as she recalled her experiences.
We were soon talking about how cultural exchange is easier now, laughing at the fact that we are able to buy Korean Ramen at a store nearby and access Japanese TV shows through the internet. She’s grateful for this opportunity to share her culture, since she still misses Japan sometimes.
Gillian Gandy, a junior business management major, was one of the many Union students who came to the festival. She especially enjoyed hearing and learning about different cultures.
“My favorite part was making connections with people I would otherwise have not met and seeing how many different cultures are present in Jackson,” she said.
Right before I left, I found the Syrian booth I had been looking for, their short menu full of foods that are familiar from home. I asked for a falafel wrap even though I was quite full, while feeling sorry that I couldn’t try everything there. As the girl and the boy serving there handed me the food, my sister and I said “shukran” (thank you), one of the few words we remember in Arabic. The surprised look on their faces was quickly overcome by a wide smile, as they replied “afwan”, you are welcome.
For more information about the festival, visit JIFAF.com